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The Public Editor: Sacramento Bee's not to blame in reporting things you don't like

From Sunday's Sacramento Bee:
By Armando Acuña, publiceditor@sacbee.com

The comments trickled in, a phone message here, an e-mail there.

A few people shouted into the phone, spitting out bile and threats before hanging up abruptly and anonymously.

Others wrote impassioned e-mails and signed their names.

Most were older readers, some of them long-time subscribers.

All were angry at The Bee.

The paper, in their view, was shoving gay marriage "down our throats" by its extensive front page coverage of gay couples exchanging vows in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision legalizing such unions.

And, to a lesser degree, a few made a double-barreled complaint, citing both gay marriage coverage and the McClatchy Washington bureau's in-depth series about wrongful detention and abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, calling the latter un-American.

No one, though, cited errors in the stories or falsehoods or fabrications.

Instead, they found fault with the very substance of the stories and accused the paper of hyping their prominence to advance what several called The Bee's "ultra-liberal" agenda.

"The Sac Bee is in trouble and if you keep doing articles like this, you will be out of business," said Pat Kelly of Rancho Murieta in a phone conversation about the paper's two-day front page coverage of gay marriages on June 17 and 18.

She said she and her neighbors were disgusted. "We don't see it as something we want to be reading. We don't like to see it," she said.

Flo Harelson, a subscriber for 30 years, said she was on the verge of quitting the paper. "Is there nothing more important than homosexuals getting married?" she asked in her phone message. "We don't need it shoved down our throats."

"While the recent state Supreme Court decision and following actions are certainly newsworthy, me thinks that The Bee doth celebrate too much," wrote David Grafft, 78, of Elk Grove in an e-mail.

"Coverage, yes, but not column after column after column day after day after day. It tells me that the Sac Bee is not only a strongly liberal Democrat organ but a willing and enthusiastic supporter of 'gay' issues."

George Dimick, a resident of the Del Webb retirement community in Lincoln, was one of those who complained about the Guantánamo series, which ran the same week as the gay marriage coverage.

"Why are you running our country down?" said Dimick, 78. "The paper was full of Guantánamo and now gay marriage. … I live in Del Webb and we all hate The Sacramento Bee."

Yet despite his anger, Dimick said he renewed his subscription ("I hated to do it") so he can read the Sports section.

I must confess I was hesitant to write about these complaints at first, in part because of their shrillness and in part because what many of these readers want is unrealistic: that The Bee ignore or downplay coverage of topics they find offensive.

That may sound trite and a no-brainer to many, but it's also foolhardy and elitist to dismiss without recognition the deeply held opinions and strong feelings of readers who believe their newspaper is disrespecting them, even when their message is delivered with all the delicacy of a 2-by-4 whacking you in the head.

There's no question the paper's coverage of gay marriage was extensive and prominent, with stories and many pictures on the front page, augmented with several sidebars, photo galleries of wedding ceremonies, video interviews with people getting married, and a "Voices" segment where local residents talked about their views of gay marriage.

Was it too much? That's in the eye of the beholder. For some critics, anything more than a brief note was overkill. For others, the extensive print and online connection smelled of hype.

Yet the paper more and more is linking its print and online components to tell big stories. This is a consistent and growing pattern when there is a major news event, and wasn't unique or special to the coverage of gay marriage.

I agree with Managing Editor Joyce Terhaar's assessment.

"It's a huge story and a huge moment in history," she said. "Twenty years from now this will be a date that people remember."

One critic accused the paper of portraying opponents of gay marriage as "religious fanatics … and it's not true."

A fair reading of the coverage, however, doesn't reflect that. There was plenty of space given to those opposed to same-sex marriage, including those who are seeking to invalidate the court's decision via an initiative on the November ballot.

As for the Guantánamo series, critics said it was a disservice in the war on terror. Some, like reader Dimick, said the paper has no business questioning the use of torture if it means stopping another 9/11.

Another reader was aghast that 66 former Guantánamo detainees – who told of being abused and mistreated by American authorities – were interviewed, saying "it's like letting the James gang out of prison and asking them how they were treated and believing everything they say … this is nothing more than political crap."

Some readers even labeled as irrelevant the U.S. Supreme Court's June 12 decision giving detainees the right to contest their cases in federal courts, rendered days before the series started.

Well, that's just nonsense and not worthy of rebuttal.

The series was a hard-hitting look behind the secrecy and abuse of power that for years has enveloped the prison at Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

Several readers, such as Mike Daugherty of Sacramento, praised the series. "Now that is what The Bee should do more of!" said Daugherty's e-mail.

So what does one draw from all this?

Unfortunately, it is that some topics so polarize readers, there's no way The Bee can satisfy them short of abdicating its responsibility to aggressively cover the news without fear or favor.

And that wouldn't be good for anybody.

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